Lee Harwood Night

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Put 15 poets in a room and ask them to read for just three minutes each – every organiser’s nightmare. But that’s exactly what Michaela Ridgeway, putting on a Pighog night in honour of the late Lee Harwood, did yesterday at Brighton’s Redroaster coffee house, and, against all poetry reading odds, it worked. Starting promptly at 8.00pm (in itself some kind of first) the formal part of the evening wrapped up at 9.15, just five minutes behind schedule.

Readers had been asked for either a poem of their own, dedicated to Lee or associated with him in some way, a poem of Lee’s and, possibly, a brief anecdote. Ken Edwards, with a new piece of writing, managed, superbly and with great humour, all three in one. Some of those reading had been part of a monthly poetry group that Lee had guided for years; others – Richard Cupidi, Paul Matthews, Tom Raworth – were very much a part of Lee’s past, his poetry, and his Brighton life.

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In the absence of Robert Sheppard, editor of the comprehensive Salt Companion to Lee Harwood, I had been asked to introduce the evening, which I did, harking back, in part, to the first occasions on which I would have hear Lee read – at the ICA or the Roundhouse in the mid-70s and likely in the company of Libby Houston, Carlyle Reedy and The Liverpool Scene.

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In an interview I did with Lee for Slow Dancer magazine, he talked about one of Soho’s iconic early coffee bars, Sam Widges, where he used to hang out in the early 60s with the likes of Pete Brown, Libby Houston and Spike Hawkins, and where, for the first time, he came across the poetry of Tristan Tzara, a major influence on his writing. One of the few places that then stayed open through the night, I would sometimes fetch up there in the early hours after an all-nighter listening to Ken Colyer at Studio 51 – a style of music that, as Lee was quick to point out, he had long left behind.

I went to listen to Ken Colyer when I was fifteen or sixteen, but then I converted to Charlie Parker and after that it was all modern jazz – Monk, Parker, the Jazz Messengers, Gillespie and then British bands, especially Joe Harriott and Shake Keane, whose music really hit home. I can’t explain why. I just loved it. And I suppose for the same reason I loved the writing of Tzara and Pound and later on Borges, Patchen, Rimbaud, William Carlos Williams, Kerouac, Ginsberg and so on. It was all the same cloth really. It was the same with painting. I loved Kandinsky – a range of forms floating on the canvas and in some way bonding.

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Appropriate then, that the last time I heard Lee read was at Shoreham WordFest in the autumn of 2014, when we were both performing with John Lake’s fine little four piece jazz group. Lee hadn’t worked with them before, but a mutual understanding quickly grew between them at rehearsals and on the evening itself the blend of music and words was just about perfect. It was great to see Lee in such fine form and clearly enjoying the experience as much as he did. If there had to be a final memory of him, this, for me, was about the best it could be.

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Lee Harwood: 6 June 1939 to 26 July, 2015

 

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I’m still in shock after hearing of Lee Harwood’s death yesterday. A friend for a good number of years, Lee was a singular and fine poet, one whose work synthesised the early influences of American writers of the New York School, John Ashbery in particular, and the European surrealism of Tristan Tzara, into something that somehow embraced the breadth of the world while maintaining, it seemed to me, something quintessentially British, English even, at its heart.

I first came across Lee’s work in Nottingham in 1975, when I bought a copy of his Fulcrum Press collection, The White Room, and went on to proudly publish two books of his poetry – In the Mists: Mountain Poems and Morning Light – and one book of prose – Dream Quilt: 30 Assorted Stories – with Slow Dancer Press.

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I was especially proud when, in 2013, being out of the country himself, Lee asked me to collect on his behalf one of that year’s Cholmondeley Awards, given to poets by the Society of Authors for their body of work and overall contribution to poetry. Of Lee, in the programme, it said the following:

His poetry is lyrical, humane, amused and precise; it is hospitable, but never superior. His active internationalism has had an influence on decades of British Poetry.

One of the last times Lee and I got together was in the autumn of last year, when we were both reading with John Lake’s band at the Ropetackle Arts Centre as part of the Shoreham Wordfest.
The only previous occasions Lee had read with jazz musicians, he told us, was back in New York in the 60s when he was a young poet in the company of some of the classiest bebop players of the day. Be that as it may, he read beautifully, clearly enjoying the manner in which the musicians responded to the particular rhythms of his poems, the band building some beautiful and appropriate architecture around two of his pieces, Brighton. October and Gorgeous – yet another Brighton Poem. 

This is the beginning of “As Your Eyes Are Blue … “, one of the poems from The White Room, and one that, when I first read it, simply took my breath away …

As your eyes are blue
you move me – and the thought of you –
I imitate you,
and cities apart, yet a roof grey with slates
or lead, the difference is little
and even you could say as much
through a foxtail of pain                      even you

And these are the final stanzas from “Sailing Westwards”, one of the poems in Lee’s last collection, The Orchid Boat, published by Enitharmon in 2014.

On the vast beach at Harlech
scattered with tellin shells and razor-shells,
dunes topped with marram grass behind me
and the dark blue grey mountains behind them,

and the flat silk sea spreads out in front of me,
over and far beyond the horizon.

Far beyond the horizon now, indeed.

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